Tomorrow, the NBA kicks off the 2009-2010 with a fantastic doubleheader, and as is my custom, I've got picks for the year. You can see my regular season and playoff predictions from last year to consider how fair and/or on the mark my forecasting can be. I should say from the outset that while I do write these subjectively as a Spurs fan, I also put them forth believing they really are the most likely thing to happen based on the facts. That is, if I were a gambling man, I would be willing to bet on them.
But getting back to the issue of being a Spurs fan, before I offer my predictions, as well as thoughts on the season -- a note at the outset.
There really is nothing in sports like being a Spurs fan.
The amount of trust, respect, and conviviality the Spurs organization has established with fans is simply unparalleled. They have given themselves a decade-and-growing mulligan on all future moves. Yes, someday Tim Duncan will no longer be on the team. Yes, Pop won't be coach forever. And yes, the management (one would think) will not always be around.
But none of that matters. The Spurs get tossed in the first round for the first time in Tim Duncan's 12 seasons (excepting the year he was injured for the playoffs), and what do they do? Trade spare parts for Richard Jefferson, nab Dejuan Blair with the 37th pick, ink Antonio McDyess to the front line (only the best big to start alongside Timmy since The Admiral), and even grab Theo Ratliff for back-up shot-blocking and defense. George Hill is the established backup point guard and the true heir to Bruce Bowen (with, as it happens, athleticism and play-making to boot on top of the stingy defense and corner three). Manu is healthy for the first time in two years. Duncan shed 15 pounds to keep it easy on his knees. Parker is now the focal point of the offense. And Mason, Finley, and Bonner are ready to knock down some threes. (This is not to mention the combination of veterans and expiring contracts that might be packaged for a sweet deal before the trade deadline.)
Again: you just can't compare it to any other organization in any professional sport. I implicitly trust every decision the leadership makes. I know these are smart guys making the best decisions available to them. I'm just going to enjoy some basketball, cheer them on, and plan for a fifth ring -- along with the final, inarguable, and decisive answer to the question of the best basketball player of the 2000s, in one more image of Mr. Tim Duncan hoisting a Finals MVP and Finals Trophy in two skinny arms pointing to the sky.
Go Spurs go!
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And with that, formal predictions with some thoughts afterward:
1. Los Angeles Lakers (62-20)
2. San Antonio Spurs (56-26)
3. New Orleans Hornets (51-31)
4. Denver Nuggets (50-32)
5. Dallas Mavericks (50-32)
6. Portland Trailblazers (48-34)
7. Phoenix Suns (47-35)
8. Los Angeles Clippers (45-37)
9. Utah Jazz (44-38)
10. Oklahoma City Thunder (42-40)
11. Minnesota Timberwolves (33-49)
12. Houston Rockets (32-50)
13. Memphis Grizzlies (28-54)
14. Golden State Warriors (19-63)
15. Sacramento Kings (17-65)
1. Orlando Magic (62-20)
2. Cleveland Cavaliers (60-22)
3. Boston Celtics (55-27)
4. Washington Wizards (51-31)
5. Chicago Bulls (51-31)
6. Miami Heat (46-36)
7. Atlanta Hawks (44-38)
8. Toronto Raptors (40-42)
9. New Jersey Nets (39-43)
10. Philadelphia 76ers (36-46)
11. Charlotte Bobcats (34-48)
12. Detroit Pistons (30-52)
13. New York Knicks (25-57)
14. Indiana Pacers (18-64)
15. Milwaukee Bucks (15-67)
Western Conference First Round
Los Angeles Lakers (1) over Los Angeles Clippers (8) in 5 games
San Antonio Spurs (2) over Phoenix Suns (7) in 5 games
Portland Trailblazers (6) over New Orleans Hornets (3) in 7 games
Dallas Mavericks (5) over Denver Nuggets (4) in 6 games
Eastern Conference First Round
Orlando Magic (1) over Toronto Raptors (8) in 5 games
Cleveland Cavaliers (2) over Atlanta Hawks (7) in 6 games
Boston Celtics (3) over Miami Heat (6) in 6 games
Chicago Bulls (5) over Washington Wizards (4) in 6 games
Western Conference Semifinals
Los Angeles Lakers (1) over Dallas Mavericks (5) in 5 games
San Antonio Spurs (2) over Portland Trailblazers (6) in 6 games
Eastern Conference Semifinals
Orlando Magic (1) over Chicago Bulls (5) in 6 games
Cleveland Cavaliers (2) over Boston Celtics (3) in 7 games
Western Conference Finals
San Antonio Spurs (2) over Los Angeles Lakers (1) in 7 games
Eastern Conference Finals
Cleveland Cavaliers (2) over Orlando Magic (1) in 7 games
San Antonio Spurs (2) over Cleveland Cavaliers (2) in 6 games
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- MVP: LeBron. Any explanation needed?
- ROY: Griffin. Obvious, except that Blair is actually going to give him a bit of a run, just like when Scola gave Durant a run two years ago.
- Coach: Mike Dunleavy. Nobody's expecting this, of course, because he's an awful coach and it's the Clippers. But they're about to go from lottery team to playoff team; every player will be motivated and singing Dunleavy's praises; and Dunleavy himself will be rejuvenated with his fantastic, good-hearted, hard-working, now-winning group of young guys. Think Doc Rivers from two seasons ago. ESPN should hire me on if I get this prediction right.
- On the East: The Celtics will start off red hot, but will slow down by the end. The Cavs will be reliably awesome, but Shaq will be their ultimate undoing. The Magic will be the best team in the league for the regular season, but the Vince Carter trade will haunt them against either the Celtics or the Cavs in the Eastern Finals -- particularly when they realize they don't have a team leader or a go-to guy in the clutch. As for the rest of the conference, the Nets are not going to be the dregs everyone thinks they'll be; the 76ers will miss the playoffs
once againnow that the sluggish play will resume with Brand back; and the Raptors will be deceptively bad, but will slip into the postseason. Other than that, it's the same old story.
- On the West: The Lakers will be the cream of the crop for the regular season, and will almost certainly win the Western crown if only because the Spurs will be resting Duncan and Manu on back-to-backs (which will, in turn, give more training and minutes to the younger guys like Hill, Blair, and Hairston). The Hornets will have a bounce back from their regression last year, but still won't have enough to make much noise in the playoffs. The Nuggets will not regress, under the leadership of Billups and Carmelo's final arrival as a legitimate top 10 guy in the league. The Mavs will be average-to-good; the Blazers will realize they shouldn't have signed a veteran point guard with extra money only to bring him off the bench; and the Suns will run and gun and trade Amare before the All-Star Game. Oh, and the Clippers will make the playoffs, the Jazz won't (due to internal drama), and the Thunder will just miss the cut.
- On questionable summer trades: The Cavs took one enormous, plodding, injury-prone step sideways with the Shaq trade, and even if they make it to the Finals, they are losing, whether it's the Spurs or the Lakers who await them there.
The Mavs didn't so much take a sideways step as ignore the lessons of the past: they still don't have a reliable big man; they still have character issues (with Howard and Terry); and now they have one more player of questionable character, commitment, and work ethic. Oh, and they re-signed an aging point guard whom Mavs fans despise -- my friend Adam refers to him as a penguin for his waddling down the court, passing it to the wing, then waddling further to the corner and not moving for the rest of the play. Yep, that's what you want when you re-sign an aging point guard!
Regarding the Lakers and the Magic, they are both in the same position: yes, they made an "upgrade" on paper, but at what cost? The Magic lost their go-to guy in the clutch, the ostensible leader of the team, and the very player who created such a singularly odd match-up problem for opposing teams. Perhaps the gamble will work, but I'm guessing it won't for the duration.
As for L.A., you gave up a young, still-developing, three-point-knocking-down, unselfish, athletic, fantastic defender with a huge wingspan who was the single difference in your winning the championship last year. What do you do? Don't re-sign him, and sign the crazy guy who starts fights and runs onto team buses in his underwear! Also, make sure he's on the down slope of his career and aging quickly. Oh, and toss in a celebrity wedding between one of your best players and the sister of a reality TV star. Mix all of that together, and you're sure to repeat.
- On other story lines: Are there any? We know the five best teams, and it is hard to believe the Finals will include some combination of any others. To some extent we know who'll be making big leaps (Rose, Randolph, Lee, Rondo, Durant, Hill), big intros (Griffin, Blair, Flynn), and big resurgences (Arenas, Baron, Marion, Manu, McGrady). It's going to be fun to watch the Clippers and Thunder and Nets play better than expected, but it still won't make a big difference. Will there be anything but predictable intrigue? Hard to tell. But of course, that doesn't mean it won't be a blast!
- A concluding note on health: Most analysts seem content to pick the Lakers over the Spurs because the Spurs need to stay healthy in order to win. This is both strange and confusing. Bynum averages a season-ending injury annually; Kobe is finally in his 30s and has yet to have any serious injuries (i.e., it's coming at some point); Lamar Odom barely re-signed, married a Kardashian, eats boatloads of candy, and is nearing the Big Three-Oh himself in November. Oh, and the elderly Ron Artest is your best wing defender, and loves taking fadeaway three-pointers. This is really the indestructible team? Who almost lost to the Magic in the Finals last summer if not for an alley-oop miss at the buzzer and two clutch Derek Fisher threes?
On the other hand, take the Spurs: they have one of the deepest benches in the league; Duncan didn't get on a court for three months in order to stay off his knees; Manu is hungry, ready, and healthy; Parker is about to reach the peak of his game; McDyess, Blair, and Ratliff are happy and gearing for ballboards, battles, and blocks; oh, and Richard Jefferson and a cabal of three-point specialists. (Plus George Hill in year number two!) With the best coach in the league, who isn't afraid to sit his older guys on back-to-backs or to limit their minutes in order both to give substantial time to the youngsters and to save the legs of the old guys. But apparently this concoction is a ticking time bomb of uncertainty and age. (Note to legitimate sports writers: "young" teams do not win titles. On average, older teams do. They do not win by athleticism or the mean of the sum of the ages of their best players. They win on experience, savvy, know-how, coaching, and depth. All things the Spurs have in spades at the moment.)
All that to say: I must be missing something here. If it weren't for Phil Jackson, I would hand the trophy to the veteran men from San Antonio right now.
As it stands, I'll sit back and watch, confidently hopeful.
[Postscript: Be sure to check out the fantastic work of Tim and Graydon over at 48 Minutes of Hell as they take us through the ins and outs of the upcoming season. There is no better combination of writing, commitment, clearheadedness, analysis, and overall Spurs-love on the Internet. Looking forward to this season and this team especially with them.]